Introduction: Since March is Irish American Heritage Month, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for researching your ancestors in Irish American newspapers. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
If Friday’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t enough to inspire you to research your Irish immigrant ancestors, did you know that March is Irish American Heritage Month? Any attempt to investigate your Irish ancestry should include a look at Irish American newspapers.
Irish American weekly newspapers date back to the 1840s. Prior to that there were a few Irish American newspapers but they were focused more on Catholics and less on the Irish as a whole. (1) These Irish American newspapers, available in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are an integral part of your family history research because they give a sense of the immigrant’s life in America – and they provide news, including genealogically relevant news, from Ireland.
Why did Irish American newspapers begin in the early 19th century? According to the article
“Ireland and the Birth of the Irish-American Press, 1842-61” by Cian McMahon:
Two factors sparked the advent of an Irish-American press. First, the Great Famine sent hundreds of thousands of Irish (approximately half of whom were literate) streaming into American towns and cities. A new readership was formed. The second important factor… was the arrival of radical republicans from Ireland who brought with them years of newspaper experience [from] back home. (2)
Irish American Weekly: An Example
One of the Irish American newspapers available in GenealogyBank is the Irish American Weekly. The collection includes issues from 1849 to 1914. This newspaper reported on the concerns in the Irish American community as well as news from home. Like many ethnic press newspapers, “…the Irish-American press was part of a wider, global network of communication amongst Irish people at home and abroad.” (3)
What types of articles can be found in the Irish American Weekly? Obviously, the newspaper evolved over time to include more pages and additional content. A look at a nineteenth century issue and a twentieth century issue will help the researcher better understand what is available and what their ancestors read.
Irish American Weekly, 29 March 1851
Let’s start by examining the masthead. The first thing to observe is that the publishers used various names for this newspaper throughout its history, including Irish American, Irish-American, Irish American Weekly, and Irish-American Weekly. To simplify things, we standardized to one title, with no hyphen: Irish American Weekly.
Another observation: the masthead for this 1851 issue proclaims: “Devoted to Literature, Science, Etc.” and “Neutral in Religion and Politics.” Possibly a reminder that this newspaper was from a new era of Irish American newspapers. This issue is a brief four pages.
The front page is filled with information, but notice on the right side there is a section titled “News from Ireland” divided by location. Some of this information is personal, such as the notice of the death of John Wray in Armagh at the age of 101 years. This notice mentions several other centenarians as well.
Next, notice the first column on the far left is titled “Business Cards.” Here is a directory of New York businesses including attorneys, a distributor of Guinness beer, clothing, and undertakers. This not only provides a possible listing for an ancestor’s business but also gives a sense of their community.
The second page of this issue includes the continuation of the “News from Ireland” section as well as a column of marriage and death notices, not divided by location but all from Ireland. Some of these notices are a sentence or two while others provide more information about the person or persons. Consider this death notice.
February 17, in Mullingar, Joseph Finegan, Esq. aged 48 years, who survived his beloved consort only six months, leaving a young interesting family to mourn their loss. Oh, how fleeting are the ways of this world, when a fond couple, in the prime of life, and possessed of every enjoyment, are in a short time stricken down, regretted by the poor, and a large circle of friends. – Requiescat in pace.
Other news on this page focuses on Irish concerns in America.
Page 3 includes local news and advertisements. Advertisements span the scope of ships available for the journey to the U.S. or Ireland, banks, clothing, and boarding houses. Notice in the fifth column there is an invitation to join the New York Irish Dragoons and an invitation to drill with the Carroll Guard, Company E, Irish volunteers.
The fourth and final page of this edition of the newspaper features even more advertisements. These advertisements include physicians, ships, and patent medicines. Readers also could read the poetry section and a fiction story found on this last page.
Irish American Weekly, 21 November 1908
Fifty-seven years later, the 1908 edition of the Irish American Weekly is very similar to the 1851 version, except that it now consisted of eight total pages. The masthead promising neutrality is missing from this front page.
In this particular issue, the majority of the front page is dedicated to the Pope’s Jubilee.
Page 2 is dedicated to “News from Ireland” and Irish marriages and deaths, similar to the 1851 newspaper issue. One improvement is that the vital record notices begin with the surname of the person or persons, making it easier to read.
Pages 3 and 4 include various U.S. stories as well as tips for women on dressmaking. Unlike other city newspapers, there isn’t just one “Women’s Page,” but instead articles geared toward women’s interests appear in other areas of the newspaper.
Pages 5 and 6 include advertisements for the Irish Emigrant Society and probate notices. These probate notices go on for several pages. These are vital to the genealogist because, in the absence of an obituary, a probate notice provides you with information about the deceased.
Page 7 includes “Women’s World,” which is a ½ page women’s section. This page also includes a column for children titled “Young Folks.”
On the last page, page 8, there is one difference not found in the earlier Irish American Weekly newspaper: “Our Gaelic Department.” The Gaelic text featured here has to do with a meeting with Pope Pius X in Rome.
Have You Researched Irish American Newspapers?
The benefit of going page-by-page through the Irish American Weekly – or any of GenealogyBank’s other Irish American newspapers – is understanding what can and cannot be found in its pages. While there is a chance you can find an ancestor’s name (either one residing in New York City or Ireland) in the vital records sections, it’s also possible that name can be found in an advertisement, probate notice, local news, etc. Knowing that can help you focus your research and your expectations.
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(1) Ireland and the Birth of the Irish-American Press, 1842-61 by Cian McMahon. American Periodicals. Vol 19, Mo. 1. Available through JSTOR at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23025142